January 11, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — Middlebury’s full-court press to secure more state support for a new in-town bridge is likely to face another uphill battle this year, according to recent pronouncements by Neale Lunderville, the new leader of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT).
Lunderville, who succeeded former AOT Secretary Dawn Terrill last August, has served notice that he wants to see the state’s existing roads, culverts and bridges repaired before the AOT takes on any substantial new projects — like a new bridge across the Otter Creek in Middlebury.
That comes as bad news to Middlebury officials, who have launched a major lobbying offensive to get a new in-town bridge on the AOT drawing board.
“One of the things the agency is going to push is, we’re not going to be designing projects until we’re ready to build them, and until we can identify money to construct them,” Lunderville said during a Jan. 4 interview. “So the first step in Middlebury, for the Cross Street project, is to find a way to pay for the construction of it in future years. Right now, we don’t have an identified funding source for that project.”
The project consists of a series of reworked downtown intersections and a bridge that would link Main Street with Court Street across the Otter Creek via Cross Street. Middlebury selectmen have unanimously endorsed the bridge location, calling it a critical future asset in alleviating chronic gridlock in downtown Middlebury.
Lunderville said he does not dispute the need for Middlebury’s in-town bridge. He just doesn’t see how the state will be able to pay for it anytime soon.
“Certainly, I think people know very well the need for a second bridge in Middlebury, and generally speaking, the agency shares (that view),” Lunderville said. “It’s difficult, because it’s an expensive project, and it’s a new capacity project — and there are a lot of other new capacity projects that are more critical in our prioritization system and are also further along in development. So we have to look at those, and make sure those get done, too.”
He cited the Morrisville bypass and the circumferential highway in Chittenden County as examples of projects that have already been designed, permitted and are just waiting for funds.
“One thing we have to stop doing, and we waste a lot of money like this, is design projects and permit projects and buy rights-of-way for projects that we don’t have any money to fund,” Lunderville said. “So we end up designing them, permitting them and buying rights-of-way, but we never build them. So they go back on the shelf. When they get dusted off the shelf, you have to go back and redesign them, because the laws have changed, or re-permit them, or buy another right-of-way because something is different.”
Lunderville does not anticipate the state will get another windfall of federal transportation dollars anytime soon.
“The federal money that came in, we are using all of it,” Lunderville said. “We are going to match every federal dollar that comes in. Is there an opportunity for federal windfalls? I would have to be very careful saying that there is. You hear from Congress right now that they are going to cut back on federal (transportation) earmarks. The president is reiterating that message, so I think you will see a push not to fund as many projects.”
Instead, Lunderville believes the state should place an emphasis on improving its existing transportation infrastructure. In December, he led the media on a bus tour of substandard bridges and culverts spread throughout the state.
“A dollar spent today will save us $10 down the line,” Lunderville said. “If we have to replace all these bridges and culverts and roadbeds that we can repair now, it’s going to eat up all of our money in the future; we’re not going to have money for any projects. That’s why I think we have to make sure that our infrastructure today is in good shape — fixing what we have.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said he’s disappointed to hear Lunderville’s assessment of the Middlebury project.
“It gives us an obstacle, at this point,” Tenny said. “But we are trying to press through the Legislature a prioritization of our project.”
Tenny said the town is also working with federal highway officials to see if the in-town bridge project could be broken up into separate segments (intersections, road work, etc.) for funding.
Tenny added he is surprised that boosting transportation infrastructure was not part of the economic development priorities that Gov. James Douglas outlined in his inaugural speech on Jan. 4. In that speech, Douglas urged the state to make strides in environmental and telecommunications technologies as a way of bringing new, good paying jobs to the state.
Better roads and bridges, according to Tenny, should also be a part of the recipe.
“Middlebury is a bottleneck in the state’s road system,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to promote this.”